I’m doing research on China, and one of the many arduous research tasks is watching Chinese movies. Here’s a neat one: an animated version of the story of 孙悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King, from Journey to the West. The director is Wàn Làimíng and the movie was made into parts, in 1961 and 1964.

The movie’s name is 大闹天宫 Dà Nào Tiāngōng ‘Big disturbance [in the] heavenly palace’, thus Uproar in Heaven. It’s a rather faithful adaptation of the first chapters of 西遊记 Xī Yóu Jì (Journey to the West), by the Míng writer Wú Chéng’ēn.

If you’ve never met Sūn Wùkōng, one of the best-loved epic heroes of China, the movie is a good introduction. He’s a superhero monkey, born in the Flower-Fruit Mountain on the Eastern Continent. The first chapters of the book are largely Dàoist— the monkey searches for the secret of immortality, learning that as well as the 72 Transformations and the 108,000-mile Cloud Somersault from the immortal Subhūti. He picks up his trademark weapon, a size-changing staff, from his neighbor the Dragon King.

The Dragon King complains to the Jade Emperor in Heaven (he didn’t think Monkey could actually pick up the staff). Amusingly, the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire is projected up into Heaven. One advisor demands war against the monkey, but another suggests a very Chinese-imperial solution: give him a minor post in Heaven, as stablemaster. Sūn Wùkōng happily accepts the position— he likes the horses— until he learns that it’s the lowest-ranking post in Heaven…

The movie is very well done— colorful, inventive, drawing deeply on Chinese opera and painting. What I like most about it is how non-Western it feels. The Japanese made their own version, Saiyūki (which is how you read 西遊记 in Japanese) in 1960, based on the manga version by Osamu Tezuka; it’s very nicely produced but highly Disneyfied— Monkey becomes too damn cute.

The animators also rose to the challenge of making supernatural fights into balletic visual spectacles— one highlight is Sūn Wùkōng’s fight against one of Heaven’s champions, where both shape-shift every few seconds. They remember what many modern animated movies forget: the medium is about drawing and movement, not dialog. (Though the voice acting is good… I like the like “Nnnnn” the Jade Emperor utters while contemplating how to address Monkey’s latest impertinence.)

It’s curious that the movie ends just after Sūn Wùkōng has defeated the Dàoist pantheon— and just before he’s defeated by the Buddha. After that, he’s imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, which breaks down his rebelliousness. When a supernatural guardian is needed to escort the monk Xuánzàng to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, he is happy to take the role. Every demon between China and India— and there are a lot of them— wants to eat Xuánzàng, so he has his furry little hands full.

(Xuánzàng was real— he made the actual trip to India in the 7th century, and did bring back hundreds of Sanskrit texts, which greatly enriched Buddhist literature in China.)

Animation is expensive, and it’s possible that that the studio planned to continue the story— the Cultural Revolution intervened instead, and the studio was shut down. Leaving out the Monkey King’s redemption makes the film an unusual celebration of pure anarchy. Sūn Wùkōng defies Heaven, eats the Celestial Empress’s peaches of immortality, trashes a banquet hall simply because he wasn’t invited to the feast, defeats every champion sent against him, and returns to the Flower-Fruit Mountain unvanquished.

If you play League of Legends, the champion Wukong is a (rather diminished) version of the Monkey King.

I discovered the movie on this list of less-known animated films, which contains plenty of other stuff to check out.